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Stepping back in time at China's schools for traditional culture and Confucianism

Ren Bowei, 7 (left) and Ji Zhengpeng, 8, practising calligraphy in Hanxiang calligraphy school. Hanxiang, like many other guoxue centres, infuses its classes with Confucian teaching.
Ren Bowei, 7 (left) and Ji Zhengpeng, 8, practising calligraphy in Hanxiang calligraphy school. Hanxiang, like many other guoxue centres, infuses its classes with Confucian teaching.ST PHOTO: TEO CHENG WEE
 Pupils in class at Hanxiang calligraphy school being taught about posture according to classical Confucian text Dizigui.
Pupils in class at Hanxiang calligraphy school being taught about posture according to classical Confucian text Dizigui.ST PHOTO: TEO CHENG WEE
Pupils in class at the Chengxian Guoxue Institute, China.
Pupils in class at the Chengxian Guoxue Institute, China.ST PHOTO: TEO CHENG WEE

It felt like I had stepped back in time when I visited Chengxian Guoxue Institute in central Beijing earlier this month.

Snow was falling gently on imperial school grounds dating back to the 14th century; everyone was dressed in traditional Chinese Hanfu robes and pupils were reciting classical Confucian text.

Yes, five decades after the Communist Party launched the Cultural Revolution and told the Chinese to destroy the "four olds" - old customs, habits, culture and thinking - China is going back to its roots in a big way. Some say too big.

Guoxue, which broadly refers to the study of Confucianism and traditional Chinese culture, literature and philosophy, has become increasingly popular in recent years.

Adults are signing up for courses, while parents send their children to get a grounding in Chinese tradition.

Its rise is partly organic, coinciding with China's rise and Chinese national pride. But it is also partly driven by the government, which has promoted Chinese tradition while styling itself as the architect of China's rejuvenation.

Whatever the cause, however, it would not have mattered to the children in those classes. During the four hours I spent observing, it was clear some could not care less about what they were learning.

It is easy to understand why. The youngest pupils in Chengxian's class have not learnt to read, yet they were expected to follow their textbook and recite verses.

To help them along, their teacher Wang Xiaorui asked them to place their fingers on numbered verses and move them along as each character is recited. Some succeed in following, some do not.

This being ancient text, there were also outdated references, such as a verse that asked the child to "get off if riding a horse" when they meet an elder person.

"Why would we be riding a horse?" some of the children asked.

"Well, they rode horses last time. You have to understand this was written long ago," Ms Wang replied.

She later acknowledged some issues with teaching Dizigui ("Standards for Being a Good Pupil and Child") when I asked her about my observations.

"I mean, even if we are driving cars, I wouldn't advise my pupils to get out of the car in the middle of the road when they meet an elder," she said, adding that she will always discuss these issues with the children.

In a class for older pupils between the ages of 10 and 12, the teacher was having an even harder time getting the children's attention.

At least two or three of the pupils would clearly rather be elsewhere. When the teacher stopped class recitation and asked them to continue, they did not know which word they had stopped at - they had not been listening at all.

It is hard to fault them. The pupils were going through "Lunyu" or "The Analects", another classic Confucian text that discusses how to live a virtuous life. It is, however, much harder than Dizigui and the classical language would stump even Chinese adults today, much less primary schoolkids.

But teacher Wang, like many parents who send their children here, genuinely believe in the value of guoxue for young children, saying it is akin to "building a good foundation for a house".

"I'm certain if more children learnt guoxue, there will be less social problems in China," she told me. "You won't hear stories of people hitting their parents or abandoning them."

The parents I spoke to also stressed that they would not force their children to attend these classes unless they themselves were willing to.

I certainly hope so, because such classes will only be fruitful if there is buy-in from the little ones. It is pointless if they end up developing an aversion to studying Chinese tradition because they were forced to.

This is important because China is set to increase the amount of time spent on guoxue in schools. The Ministry of Education last year issued a guideline for teaching traditional culture from primary school through university, and required more lessons on traditional culture to be included in school textbooks.

Given that textbook space and school time is finite, this move is not without its cost. Learning more traditional Chinese culture means learning less of something else.

It also comes as the authorities are reducing the weightage of English language in China's high school gaokao examination, which may lower the level of English competency among students.

Rather than having it forced on them, children should feel guoxue is meaningful, and hopefully, enjoyable. Or maybe even the road to a bright future.

As eight-year-old Ji Zhengpeng said, after I asked him why he wanted to learn calligraphy, "because I want to be a famous calligrapher".

"Then I can make big money and buy a big house."

chengwee@sph.com.sg